Important notice

Alberta is currently in water shortage management stage 4, where multiple water management areas are impacted by water shortage. Alberta’s government is monitoring the situation and is working closely with water users and local governments to help manage and conserve water where possible. Learn more about current conditions on Alberta River Basins.

What is drought?

Drought is a prolonged period of dry weather that depletes water resources, including:

  • natural sources (rivers, streams, lakes, wetlands, groundwater)
  • man-made storage (reservoirs and dugouts)
  • soil moisture

Drought can further be defined based on its impacts, including:

  • Meteorological drought is a result of less precipitation than normal over a prolonged period in a specific region. This is usually the first type of drought to occur, and is based on water shortage conditions and not impacts of drought, which typically appear later.
  • Agriculture drought occurs when there is not enough soil moisture to meet the needs of crops and pastures during the growing season. It usually occurs next after a meteorological drought.
  • Hydrological drought occurs when surface water or groundwater levels fall to below-average levels because of a lack of precipitation. It usually occurs more slowly than a meteorological or agricultural drought.
  • Socio-economic drought occurs when the prolonged water shortage in a region begins to impact people and the economy.

In the past 120 years, 5 major droughts have occurred across the Canadian Prairies. Starting in 1929 with the “Dust Bowl”, multi-year droughts also occurred in the 1980s and the early 2000s.

For updates on current conditions, visit the Advisories Menu on Alberta River Basins or Alberta Rivers app.

Impacts of drought

Many Albertans believe this province has an abundant supply of freshwater, but in some areas, such as Southern Alberta, water scarcity is already a reality. Impacts from drought include:

  • degradation or death of vegetation, fish and wildlife
  • economic losses in agriculture and associated industries
  • water restrictions, shut down of some licensed water diversions where water demands exceed water supply
  • increased forest fire risk

Multi-year droughts are critical to understand and prepare for because their impacts on the environment, economy and society are cumulative. Because we do not know in advance whether a drought will become a multi-year event, the potential for prolonged droughts requires greater preparedness and resiliency.

Water management during drought

Alberta’s government ensures the quality and quantity of Alberta’s water resources under the Water Act, which supports and promotes the conservation and management of water. During times of drought or water shortage, it may be necessary for the government to administer priorities for water licences to protect the aquatic environment and integrity of the water management system.

Depending on the length and severity of a water shortage, the government may proceed through these 5 stages of water shortage:

  • Stage 1: Monitoring and Observation
    • As the water supply outlook indicates there may be potential water shortages and there is elevated risk to priority calls, apportionment agreements and the aquatic environment.
  • Stage 2: Active Management
    • Stream flows are below instream objective or water conservation objectives and is forecast not to improve, with stressful conditions for fish populations.
  • Stage 3: Priority Call Assessment and Administration
    • Receipt of a Priority Call or Apportionment Administration
  • Stage 4: Multiple Water Management Areas Affected
    • A significant number of licensees/traditional agricultural users / household users in the water management areas are impacted and unable to divert water, with water shortage projected to or does persist.
  • Stage 5: Declaring an Emergency under the Water Act
    • Significant risk to human health and safety due to insufficient water supply and water quality degradation. Municipalities, water users and Alberta Government departments have been unable to address the extent and magnitude of water shortage. Significant stress on the health of the aquatic environment where fish mortality occurs.

Learn more about Water Shortage Management Stages.

Municipal involvement

Municipalities also play a large role in water management during drought as they are responsible for water supply and distribution to communities. They develop community-wide water shortage response plans, which may include voluntary or mandatory water restrictions. Municipalities also declare agricultural disasters when crops are impacted by drought.

Accessing water with a Water Act licence

Other than a few specific exemptions (such as the right to divert water for household purposes), diverting and using surface or groundwater in Alberta requires a licence under the Water Act. It is the responsibility of the Water licence holder to understand and follow the terms and conditions of their licence. During a water shortage, licence holders may gain access to water by any of these 3 methods, or a combination of.

  • Seniority-based

    Seniority calls (also called priority calls) can be made by senior licence holders. When there is not enough water to meet all of the licencee needs in a particular basin, a senior licence holder may contact the department to administer priority rights. For example, a licencee with a more senior (older) licence has the right to divert some or all of its allocation, subject to its licence terms and conditions, before a more junior licencee has access to that water. This is referred to as being first in time, first in right.

    In order to administer a priority call, the department may issue a water management order to junior licence holders. Water management orders are enforceable under Section 142 (1)(c) of the Water Act. Restrictions apply until the senior licence holder’s needs have been met and the order has been lifted by the department.

  • Water sharing

    A water sharing agreement distributes existing licensed allocations between licencees through assignment agreements. A licencee or registrant may assign all or part of the water allocation and priority under their licence or registration to another licencee or traditional agricultural user for a period of time set out in an assignment, but only up to the amount of water the receiving licence is allocated to divert. If a licencee wants to divert more water than their licence is allocated for, then a temporary transfer is required.

    During periods of water shortages, the Government of Alberta may encourages water-sharing assignments among parties. The government may wish to engage potential parties and facilitate meetings between licencees or traditional agricultural users in order to encourage assignments under section 33 of the Water Act.

    Licencees should carefully consider the consequences of assigning all or a portion of their allocation and priority

  • Water transfer

    A water transfer can be a temporary or permanent transfer of an allocation to another licencee or new water user. Transfers are the primary method to enable a new project or water user to divert water in a river basin that has been “closed” to new allocations. Transfers are also a means for an existing water user to manage the risk of water shortage by acquiring a licence with a more senior priority.

    The Water Act allows for the transfer of an allocation of water held under a licence from one parcel of land to another if authorized by an approved water management plan or by an order of the Lieutenant Governor in Council. The transfer may result in creation of a new licencee (change in ownership) as well as a new location for the diversion.

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